The approach to the Bedouin village of Um al-Hiran, in the Negev region of Israel-Palestine, is a very steep track carved out of the desert hillside. Our bus driver expertly navigated the steep turns and difficult terrain – at once rocky and slippery with dust. A young village boy excitedly directed the driver into a parking spot outside the small community mosque. This was in October 2016, when I joined a party of activists and scholars in a symposium on comparative legal Indigenous rights to visit Um al-Hiran and other Bedouin villages in the Negev. Perched on the desert hillside on that warm October day, the village seemed to my eyes a model of self-building and self-organisation: a cluster of well-built houses, a central water storage system, solar power, and of course the ubiquitous fruit and olive trees that make the desert landscape come alive. The village had existed there since the 1950s, when the al-Qiyan tribe was forced by the Israeli military to relocate from their lands elsewhere during the Naqba (literally the ‘catastrophe’ of the mass displacement of Palestinians during the 1948 Palestinian war) and were required to remain in that location.
But at the time of our visit it was under immediate threat, since the Israeli High Court had determined in 2015 that the community was trespassing under Israeli law. The State’s plan was to require the villagers to move to the nearby town of Hura and make way for the building of a new Jewish settlement. As we sat drinking mint tea under the verandah of our local guide’s home we could hear the graders at work just behind his house. They were preparing the ground for this new Jewish-only suburb, a model of sustainable suburban development no less, but one that would raze Um al-Hiran and displace, once again, all of its residents. The Israeli flag flew high above the compound from where the machinery of ‘development’ operate, a constant reminder to the villagers that their land is not their own, and their eviction imminent. In January 2017, just a few months after we visited, Um al-Hiran was once more in the global news. When the border patrol, police and bulldozers arrived to demolish the village, a notable village member was killed and the now all-too-familiar cover-up of the facts got underway.
This extraordinary story of seemingly perpetual injustice is on endless repeat in all of the remaining 35 unrecognized Bedouin localities in southern Israel- and dozens more in the West Bank, Palestine. It is a story all-too familiar from the work done by scholars and activists exposing how Israeli planning and town building is central to the regime of dispossession and violent displacement of Palestinians (Yiftachel, 2009; 1996; Yiftachel & Fenster 1997).
There has been a forced urbanization process at work by the Israeli State against the Bedouin for decades now. This is principally focused in the Negev region where most of the Bedouin villages and towns are located. The State of Israel and its military have systematically driven thousands of Bedouin people off their lands, and reduced their access to land in such a manner that seriously constrains cultivation and Bedouin livelihoods. This process became a distinct and explicit planning policy in 1966, operating – as all forms of dispossession in settler-colonial contexts do – through the integration of discourse, law and violence. A discursive racist stigma labels the Bedouin people ‘nomads’, although for over 200 years, they have been permanent and stable residents of their ancestral lands. 'Nomads' is a racist code familiar from other colonial contexts where Indigenous peoples are portrayed as uncivilized, unpropertied, and without recognizable legal rights and title. Such a discourse enables policies that purport to fix, improve and develop.
"This extraordinary story of seemingly perpetual injustice is on endless repeat in all of the remaining 35 unrecognized Bedouin localities in southern Israel- and dozens more in the West Bank, Palestine. It is a story all-too familiar from the work done by scholars and activists exposing how Israeli planning and town building is central to the regime of dispossession and violent displacement of Palestinians."
This discursive logic is combined with legal regimes that create a framework for denial, dispossession and usurpation of territory. In the case of Israel-Palestine, the ‘dead Negev doctrine’ is one such legal fiction. Operating much like terra nullius has done in Australia, it works to dispossess land, at the same time as deny that dispossession, covering its own tracks. How does this work? The dead Negev doctrine states that until the British Mandate era, the Bedouin were nomads, unable to possess land or hold title because of their nomadic lifestyles – literally wanderers across the landscape with no sense of ownership. Thus the lands over which they wandered were ‘dead’. The state uses this narrative despite its contradiction with historical records (Nasasra, 2017), as part of an ongoing campaign to distort public understanding of Indigenous groups.
But the perversity goes further. Under the British Mewat Land Ordinance, all cultivators of previously uncultivated lands across the lands of Israel-Palestine were required to formally register their land by April 1921. However, most people (Jews and Arabs alike) did not heed the call from the colonial power, and kept using their traditional methods of land allocation and record keeping. At the end of 1921, not even 5% of lands were registered under that process (including many Jewish settlements), and none of the Bedouin applied for formal registration. The State of Israel now claims that because the Bedouin did not comply with the Mewat Land Ordinance and register their lands, the land became ‘dead’ forever, regardless of the obvious evidence of ownership, settlement, occupation and cultivation over long generations. It is mainly Bedouins, and to a lesser extent West Bank Palestinians, who are being punished for this lack of registration. The result is that the State refuses to recognize Bedouin ownership of their lands, even when they hold the paper title deeds to the very lands they occupy. The logic is clear – a discriminatory application of the ‘dead land’ doctrine to specifically target Bedouin people, and the application of perverse legal argument to dispossess a seriously marginalized minority from its own lands.
Not even these legal acrobatics can operate effectively, from a settler-colonial state perspective, without the actual violent material work of displacement and dispossession. Because, of course, Bedouin people continue to live on their lands and in the villages they have so carefully self-built – it is after all, their land. And so the State uses these discursive and legal regimes to justify police and special 'regulation unit' actions: the bulldozing of homes, the violent eviction of communities, impoverishment, a vicious intent to destroy a culture, law and way of life, and occasional violent encounters with death and injuries. These all-too familiar strategies of settler-colonialism are starkly at work in the desert hillsides of the Negev.
"The result is that the State refuses to recognize Bedouin ownership of their lands, even when they hold the paper title deeds to the very lands they occupy."
All of these factors together collude to force urbanization of the Bedouin people. The State of Israel designated 7 specially built towns across the Negev specifically for the purpose of settling the Bedouin people (and only the Bedouin) and clearing the Negev for Jewish occupation. The special designation and recognition of these towns should not be misrecognized as an altruistic act of welfare. The strategy here is one of clearing land of its Bedouin encumbrances to enable full Jewish occupation and to ‘develop’ the Negev. Most of the Bedouin people who went to these newly planned urban areas were landless refugees, having been forced off their lands elsewhere in 1948 during the Naqba. As some of the 38 million people internally displaced persons globally, there was little choice. But these so-called specially built towns are hopelessly under-planned and poorly serviced. Sometimes basic urban services like garbage collection are not provided. Unemployment is high and because of the lack of access to land, peoples’ traditional livelihoods are destroyed and are often replaced by menial low-paying jobs.
There is such disdain among Bedouin people for the idea of moving to these formal towns, that there are presently 46 Bedouin villages and localities in the Negev and over twenty in the occupied territories outside the planned towns, where people who refuse to live in the planned towns self-organise and self-build. Like the village of Um al-Hiran, these villages are the result of the sustained displacement of Bedouin people from their land. People have been forced to settle and build anywhere they can find, rather than use the full extent of their lands according to their traditions. Practices of animal herding and agriculture for Bedouin people are strongly associated with seasons in the harsh desert environment, and using different parts of their lands at different times of the year. Sometimes these villages are actually on the traditional lands of the villagers, sometimes not. Regardless there is a strong feeling outside the formal Bedouin towns that people would prefer not to live in them, not least because of the strong sense that this is a deliberate strategy by Israel to dispossess them. This is the principle of sumood – steadfastness, and resistance through habitation and continuing life on the ground. Bedouins prefer to stay.
The struggle, then, by the Bedouin is many-faceted. Organising daily life and surviving under these conditions is a major aspect of that struggle. This is the poorest community in Israel, with every second Bedouin family under the poverty line and 50% unemployment in some areas. Simply to stay put under these conditions, plus the constant fear of eviction and demolition, is remarkable.
There are also significant political and organizational efforts. In 1997 the Regional Council for the Unrecognized Villages (RCUV) was established as a voluntary civil society group to create a political voice for the unrecognized villages, which range in size from 500 to 8000 inhabitants, totaling over 100,000 people. Under a more progressive Israeli state from 1995 to 2008 there was some gradual partial recognition of 11 of the 46 villages. This removed the constant threat from those 11 villages of forced eviction, demolition and relocation into the designated urban areas. In 2008, the Goldberg committee, which was established to regulate Bedouin settlement in the Negev, recommended in a highly progressive move that the remaining informal Bedouin localities should be recognized.
"This is the poorest community in Israel, with every second Bedouin family under the poverty line and 50% unemployment in some areas. Simply to stay put under these conditions, plus the constant fear of eviction and demolition, is remarkable."
But this progressive recommendation was never actualized, and in 2009 with the return of a right-wing government, the situation has deteriorated. In what seems now typical two-faced style, that deterioration is dressed up as welfare and justice. For in 2011, the Prawer plan proposed to ‘implement’ the Goldberg recommendations by distorting the plan's intention, and returning to the previous policy of forced urbanization into the 7 designated towns. This has been further entrenched under the latest 2013 plan, under former Minister Benni Begin. Combined, this Prawer-Begin approach underpins the Bill on the Arrangement of Bedouin Settlement in the Negev, still being deliberated in the Parliament, and strongly opposed by Bedouin communities. These plans and regulations purport to resolve Bedouin claims through a system of land compensation, regularization of title and further urbanization. But their effects will be to further dispossess and displace Bedouin communities.
And so the cycle of eviction, demolition and resistance continues. During the last five years, up to 1000 Bedouin houses are demolished each year, affecting 5000 people annually. The village of Al-Araqib has been demolished more than 100 times since 2010 – yet people are still living there, returning after each demolition and rebuilding, only for the bulldozers to return once again and destroy their homes. This stand-off has precipitated a constant and terrifying cycle resulting in extremely precarious living conditions. In 2014, Israel demolished again and this time ploughed the land to try and remove every last trace of the village, attempting to make rebuilding impossible. An erasure of an erasure. Yet a handful of people in tents remain in Al-Araqib, determined to continue the occupation of their own lands and claim their rights.
And it is this dispossession that organisations like the RCUV, and planning and human rights NGOs like Bimkom and Sidreh work to counter. For these organizations, planning is operationalized as a key mode of resistance and struggle, against the forces of displacement and Israeli state-based planning. Considerable effort has gone into collating information about the unrecognized villages, since a primary problem is the lack of good data on the current situation – none, for example, are counted in the census. Many villagers still hold the customary title to their lands, and so this remains an essential part of the struggle to document the existence of these papers and mount a case for recognition from them.
"It is this dispossession that organisations like the RCUV, and planning and human rights NGOs like Bimkom and Sidreh work to counter. For these organizations, planning is operationalized as a key mode of resistance and struggle, against the forces of displacement and Israeli state-based planning."
A central plank of the Bedouin political strategy is for the recognition of their lands and the remaining 35 unrecognized localities. The creation of the RCUV is part of that strategy. This not only creates solidarity and organization, to combine efforts and resources, it also reinforces a discourse of Bedouin-ness, bolstering the claim for recognition and rights. Yet despite repeated efforts in court cases to have their rights and title recognized, this has been systematically denied. Between May and June 2015, no less than 4 key Supreme Court decisions (Um al-Hiran, Al-Uqbi, Susya, Dirat Rif’ia) decided against the Bedouin people, denying their title and their rights to occupy their lands. All of these decisions used the 'dead Negev doctrine' to justify simply not seeing the Bedouin use, occupation, cultivation and ownership of their lands since before the Ottoman period.
Of perhaps greatest interest for us as progressive planners is the deployment of planning itself in the face of these deep injustices. The Regional Council for Unrecognized Villages (whose chief planner heading the project was geographer-planner Oren Yiftachel) joined hands with Bimkom and Sidreh to produce an alternative plan. This alternative plan, sets out how to recognize, service and develop all of the unrecognized Bedouin villages, by creating municipal structures for the villages, allocating land and providing services. At the heart of the plan is a model for developing the villages according to the Bedouin system of land inheritance and use, and in a way that recognizes the attachment of each community to their lands.
For someone like me, located in the settler-colonial context of Australia, where planning has been one of the hallmark strategies of continued Indigenous dispossession for more than 200 years, the situation of the Bedouin is all-too familiar. The mechanisms for dispossession are striking in their similarities – legal acrobatics, the discursive production of Indigenous people as Other, unpropertied, and backward, and the use of violent means to steal the land in the service of others’ occupation. Resistance struggles also look familiar – the use of the courts, adopting the language of the master State to mount claims for recognition and rights, outright protest and forming strategic alliances. Yet the situation for the Bedouin is a reminder that the stark violence of the frontier phase of settler-colonialism is never really over. And while planning can perpetrate some of its worst injustices in this context, it can also be deployed in the cause for transformation and emancipation. Long may that hope last.
With thanks to Oren Yiftachel for inspirational work and providing guidance on this article, also to Alon Cohen-Yifshitz, Yeela Raanan, the villagers of Um al-Hiran, and the Regional Council of Unrecognized Villages on whose work I have drawn here.
Nasasra, M. 2017. The Naqab Bedouins: a Century of Politics of Resistance, New York, Columbia University Press.
Yiftachel, O., 1996. The internal frontier: Territorial control and ethnic relations in Israel. Regional Studies, 30(5), pp.493–508.
Yiftachel, O. 2009. 'Critical Theory and Gray Space: Mobilization of the Colonized', City, 13(2-3), pp. 246-26
Yiftachel, O. & Fenster, T., 1997. Frontier Development and Indigenous Peoples. Progress in Planning, 47.
Libby Porter is Associate Professor and Vice Chancellor's Principal Research Fellow at RMIT University where she does research into the contemporary politics of urban dispossession.